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Always Running La Vida Voca: Gang Days in L.A.

When I was a kid in western Kansas in the 1950s, youth gangs were something one read about in the newspapers. Remote from our tidy WASP perspective, they were something that happened in New York or California. Since the Los Angeles riots last April and the drug wars everywhere, gangs have exploded into public consciousness.

Luis Rodriguez's book brings us into the turbulent vortex of gang life in all its bitter complexity. This is no mere sociological report but a cry of pain and a summons to save the lives of our children in American cities.

Rodriguez had already written some of this history in his poetry, through which he has achieved a significant place among our promising younger writers. However, since his teenage years, he has struggled to put the experience into prose, in part, perhaps, to exorcise some personal demons, to come to terms with the mayhem of gang life. And now that his son Ramiro has gotten involved in la vida loca, Rodriguez felt an urgency to tell the whole story.

"This experience," he says, "originated with the Mexican pachuco gangs of the 1930s and 1940s and was later re-created with the cholos." It became a model for such disparate peoples as the outlaw bikers, the L.A punk-rock scene and then the Crips and Bloods. He cites Leon Bing that "it was the cholo homeboy who first walked the walk and talked the talk. It was the Mexican-American pachuco who initiated the emblematic tattoos, the signing with hands, the writting of legends on walls."

Rodriguez's father was a school superintendent in Mexico who was removed from his position there because of political opposition. He came to the United States but, because no one would accept his credentials, he was relegated to menial jobs.

The racism of restrictive housing "covenants" in Los Angeles meant that large barrios sprung up, which meant that, simultaneously, parts of people's language and culture could be preserved but the schools would be deplorable, as were all manner of other social support systems. Children were penalized for speaking Spanish or even improperly relegated to handicapped or special-education classes. There was no emphasis whatever on Mexican or Mexican-American culture and history.

The first time young Luis was beaten up, it was because he had wandered into a "white" section of town. Five teenagers on bikes called him a spick and "pushed me to the ground; the groceries splattered onto the asphalt. I felt melted gum and chips of broken beer bottle on my lips and cbeek. . . . I remember the shrill, maddening laughter of one of the kids on a bike, this laughing like a raven's wail, a harsh wind's shriek, a laugh that I would hear in countless beatings thereafter."

In such conditions, given the fragmentation of the family under poverty's hammer, that gangs would form for self-survival is almost natural. That is why gangs are so territorial; they are by definition defensive. Rodriguez describes the different gangs in a wealth of detail, the character of the leaders and followers such as Yuk Yuk, Black Dog and Chava and above all the vivid, energetic and doomed "life of the streets."

Because be and his pals were always engaging in hustles, robberies, fights and so on, he was always running. People killed, and were killed, by the dozens, now by the hundreds. Drugs like marijuana and spray cans were around; now it's angel dust and crack that devastate the mind and early make young men old, except that, because of the violence, few survive in any case.

The rise of the Chicano cultural and political movement of the late 1960s and into the 1970s provided Rodriguez with a first hope of something different. A small study group, led by Chente, provides a perspective: "The collective explained how workers of all colors and nationalities, linked by hunger and the same system of exploitation, have no country; their interests as a class respect no borders. To me, this was an inconquerable idea."

Similarly, within the school system, there was finally some encouragement for people's real culture. One of the most moving sections of the book describes how Luis studies Aztec dances and, with his young woman partner, wins the competition to represent the school at athletic events, authentically and with dignity. The Chicano students organize in the schools with at least some partial successes. Luis becomes a mural painter. With one exception, his murals have not been whitewashed over.

Thus the book expresses not only the tragedy of the situation, but the view that, as the study group's leader, Chente, says: We must also consider bow to provide something real and sustainable. Role-playing and game-playing won't make it. These young people need a strong economic foundation and a viable future. If you're not addressing this, then you're not serious about solving anything." It is in that way that even a small group can literally save lives.

By expressing the pain of those most destroyed, Rodriguez never lets us forget where we need to go together. He thinks it is possible for us all to deal with these problems, not by way of patching here and there, but through fundamental change. I hope that Ramiro and his generation will be spared the fate of so many victims who have been slain without reason or a reward in life.
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Author:Whitehead, Fred
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 8, 1993
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